Mary Louise Wilson: She’s an actor you’ve probably seen often, and still might not know her by name. On Broadway, she was Big Edie in Grey Gardens, for which she received a Tony Award. She got an Obie for her work in Amy Herzog’s 4,000 Miles at Lincoln Center, and a Tony nomination for her rendition of Fraulein Schneider in the Broadway revival of Cabaret, to cite just a few of her stage credits. Recent television appearances include roles in Mozart in the Jungle, Devious Maids, The Sopranos, Louie C. K. and Nurse Jackie. In film, she has appeared in Nebraska, The Humbling, Step Mom, Klute, Green Card, She-Devil, Pet Sematary, Zelig and The Money Pit. In the 1990s Wilson co-wrote (with Mark Hampton) the one-woman play Full Gallop, in which she portrayed fashion icon Diana Vreeland, and for which she won an Obie and the Drama Desk Award.
Most recently, Wilson was Leticia Primrose in On the Twentieth Century at the Roundabout Theatre Company. The play only closed a week ago, and when asked if she ever considers retiring, she says, “I think about retiring all the time. And then I get a job. I can’t retire. You don’t call your agent and say, ‘Don’t call me anymore.’ No matter how fed up with it or tired of it you think you are, there’s this thing in you that will always want to be acting. I joke about the fact that I say I want to retire, then a phone call comes and this snake comes out of my mouth and says, ‘What time? Where?’”
At 83, Wilson hardly seems to be slowing down, much less calling it quits. And now she has written a memoir: My First Hundred Years in Show Business. The title obviously stretches things a bit, although a lifelong career onstage and in front of the camera might certainly feel like a century when all the miles schlepping to casting calls and meetings and rehearsals and auditioning for commercials and flying across the country and so on get added up. Her story is humorous and painful and informative in turns. Learning early on to get attention by being funny, Wilson steadfastly gravitates to the spotlight where the laughs are, all the while indulging in her own interior monologue of self-doubt and remorse. She describes her desperation to land roles and her concurrent abhorrence of many of those same opportunities, realizing at last how self-sabotaging her own uncertainties are. She cries openly and in public when frustration gets the best of her.
Wilson writes: “I have always had a quarrel with show business; always wanting to run from it, but needing it, needing to be wanted somewhere. My first response to any job offer is invariably ‘No’.” And during one long-running play, “Every day on the way to the theater, I remind myself how great it was to have steady work, but every day as I stepped through the stage door, I entered a decompression chamber.” At the same time she admits that her rather solitary life is salved by the work. “I’m in the theater to hang out with actors. I go to the theater to see actors. They amaze me. They thrill me.”
My First Hundred Years eschews strict chronology, yet weaves a delightfully comprehensible narrative that takes the reader from Wilson’s intense childhood home through her forays into life in New York City, her jobs and flops and many living quarters and the long stretch of barely uttering whole sentences in a string of negligible parts. The book is punctuated with straight-arrow truths regarding the business: “If you play a despicable character, you should prepare to be treated despicably.” And “The farther away the cast gets from home, the more they start sleeping around. You fall into bed with people you wouldn’t ordinarily throw sticks at.”
She writes that the original idea for the book was to chronicle the evolution of Full Gallop, which purpose is interspersed throughout. You get a long-drawn-out recounting of how a play is developed and tested on way-Off-Broadway stages and rewritten and pitched to potential backers and rewritten again and again. It sounds like endless labor, with the actual birth shimmering in some unknown future with no delivery date. She writes, “The fact is, if you never want to hear from somebody again, send them your play.”
Stardom arrives at last when Full Gallop is a hit. Wilson is 60 years old. She accepts the much-deserved approbation that she receives and says, “It was okay for me to be the star when I was the only one onstage.” But she’s thrown into publicity events, fashion-show appearances, and suddenly she’s seen as an authority on acting and is asked to give a drama-school graduation address. “I didn’t enjoy these occasions. What could I tell them? ‘Don’t do it’?”
My First Hundred Years is an engaging read, one that imparts a tenuous sense of hope regarding the possibility of continued work and fulfillment for those of us aging out of most career endeavors. About her story possibly inspiring younger women, she says, “Younger people don’t seem to give a damn about anything further back than 2010; they’re not interested in the past. Although, I’m in this show now, and there are lots of young people in it; some even bought the book.” Later, when the subject of young actors comes up again, she says, “I talk about young people not being interested in older ones, but I definitely do have a cutoff limit.”
About how she came to be in Marbletown: “I had a friend in Woodstock, and house-hunted in the whole area. I love this old farmhouse; it had not been improved and nothing new had been done to it. It’s very simple. I like where it is, because there are stone houses here mixed up with trailers.”
Asked if she had advice to people just coming into the business, any little tidbit: “It’s important to have something else you love to do, because you can’t do your work unless you’re invited, you know what I mean? You can do a one-person show, like I did. I was very lucky with my subject matter.” My First Hundred Years ends with a Who’s Who index of people whom she has encountered over the decades, and Wilson acknowledges co-members in her imagined “Character Actors’ Club” of people whose names may also not be familiar to the general public. It is a gracious gesture, and she hopes that no one is offended for showing up (or not showing up) on the list.
Wilson will appear with WAMC’s Joe Donahue at the Morton Memorial Library in Rhinecliff on Monday, July 27 at 7 p.m., where they’ll talk about her new memoir, playwriting, her passion for gardening and her extensive career in film and on Broadway. (A portion of this evening’s event will be recorded for later rebroadcast.) She’ll also be at Inquiring Minds in New Paltz on Friday, August 28 at 7 p.m. “Right now my future goal is a hammock – this fabulous Mexican hammock on my porch – and I can’t wait to get there.”
Oblong Books presents Mary Louise Wilson with Joe Donahue, Monday, July 27, 7 p.m., $10, Morton Memorial Library, 82 Kelly Street, Rhinecliff; (845) 876-0500, www.oblongbooks.com.